Signal workers fight for justice

April 4, 2008

THE NEARLY 100 Indian guest workers who walked off the job at the Signal International shipyard in Mississippi last month traveled to Washington to put pressure on the Indian and U.S. governments to stop human trafficking by labor recruiters.

After a weeklong journey to Washington, in which they visited historic sites of the civil rights movement, the workers met with India's ambassador to the U.S., Ronen Sen, on March 27. Sen, who had avoided meeting with the workers for weeks, listened to their complaints for three hours but refused to commit to take action.

"The ambassador hid behind protocol," said Stephen Boykewich, a spokesperson for the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice, which has built a support campaign for the Signal workers. "But we feel that the seriousness and urgency of this situation goes beyond protocol."

The workers are demanding that the Indian government take action against recruiters such as Dewan Consultancies, which promised some 500 workers permanent residency and green cards if they went to work at Signal--and paid the recruiter $15,000 to $20,000 to get the job.

In responding to media enquiries, Indian Embassy officials reportedly referred to "the stupidity of greedy and semi-literate workers." The workers were incensed--and let Sen know about it in an often tense, three-hour meeting, Boykewich said.

On March 31, the workers marched to the White House to spur the U.S. government into stopping corporate abuse of guest workers. They also planned to meet with Rep. George Miller, the chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, who has expressed support for the workers.

The struggle began a year ago when Signal terminated six workers for protesting low pay and horrible living conditions in the company's "man camp." "Even in Arab countries where I have worked, I did not see such horrible conditions," said one of the fired workers, Sabulal Vijayan.

On March 6, some 100 of them marched off the job, carrying signs of the civil rights movement. "We need freedom in this country," Vijayan said. "I am a human being. That's my message."

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